Google StreetView has been a controversial offering since its launch, with privacy at the core of both individual and regulatory concerns. It’s also enormously practical and useful in many cases. But governments from Canada to Europe have sought to gain privacy concessions from Google in its international rollout. Google has also been sued a couple of times by private parties over alleged trespassing by StreetView vehicles and imagery. Now a group of academics and attorneys in Japan is trying to fight StreetView on privacy grounds as well.
Reuters quotes a spokesperson for this group:
“We strongly suspect that what Google has been doing deeply violates a basic right that humans have,” Yasuhiko Tajima, a professor of constitutional law at Sophia University in Tokyo, told Reuters by telephone.
“It is necessary to warn society that an IT giant is openly violating privacy rights, which are important rights that the citizens have, through this service.”
The Campaign Against Surveillance Society, a Japanese civilian group that Tajima heads, wants Google to stop providing its Street View service of Japanese cities and delete all saved images.
Google StreetView brings into focus a number of important and difficult issues about technology, the internet and privacy. And part of the reason that people are upset is because the company behind StreetView is Google. You don’t see people raising the same concerns about Everyscape, which is doing the identical thing. But Google’s global footprint sparks fear of a “big brother” or “eye in the sky” taking their picture or pictures of where they live — in this world of ever-diminishing privacy. Yet social networks and others have also contributed to this phenomenon in a broader sense (e.g., being “tagged” in other people’s pictures on Facebook and having that broadcast out through news feeds). Then there’s the “permanent record” that the internet creates: those drunken pictures at the college party that may haunt the job interviewee years later.
The internet makes it very easy to access information about individuals very efficiently. For example, most people’s home addresses in the US (including mine) can be discovered quickly and easily through WhitePages.com. My house is also visible on StreetView. Much or most of this information may be “public” or may have been publicly available but no one had previously made it so easily discoverable as have search engines and the various data tributaries now flowing from a million sources into the internet.
Indeed, all this goes way beyond Google but Google “personifies” the privacy issue, and StreetView in particular.
To step back, long before StreetView the US Supreme Court was busy eroding personal privacy in the name of law enforcement through a string of decisions surrounding interpretation of the “unreasonable searches and seizures” clause of the Fourth Amendment of the US Bill of Rights. More recently there was the Bush administration and its illegal wiretapping and information gathering, which involved ISPs and telcos, justified in the name of protecting Americans from potential terrorism.
To bring it back to the internet, questions of privacy surround the limits and extent of profiling and ad targeting online and offline. People want “relevant” advertising but they don’t want to be tracked. How’s that for ambivalence.
The broad legal and social challenge is how do we define privacy — or redefine it — in an era of comprehensive databases and monitoring, with nearly all of that data being served up quickly and efficiently to almost anyone online? Yet the concerns that surround StreetView today may seem trivial in 10 years when everyone is carrying a GPS phone that allows for the full-scale monitoring of individuals’ movements throughout the day.
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